There are certain products that act as emotional and political barometers for where America stands at any given moment. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was toilet paper. For much of this year, it’s been guns, which have seen record sales among two new groups: Black people and women.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a trade group which studies the industry, sales to Black Americans are up 58 per cent compared to last September, and sales are up 40 per cent to women during that same period. The NSSF said sale spikes during election years are common, but this is unprecedented, with gun sales likely to surpass 2016’s record of 15.7 million firearms sold.
“We've never seen a year-over-year increase that large in African-American gun buyers," Mark Oliva, the foundation's director of public affairs, told CNN. “It is the largest demographic increase we've seen.”
The bump is the accumulation of an intense year of uncertainty in America, beginning with a spike in gun sales during pandemic; carrying on with another spike during a summer of occasional riots, Boogaloo Boys, and perhaps the largest protests in US history in response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd; and concluding in a fiercely contested election where the president speaks gently to heavily armed vigilante groups.
The National African American Gun Association said 5,000 new members have joined since the pandemic began.
"It just seems we've had a lot more high-profile incidents where White supremacists have caused harm to Black people," Douglas Jefferson, vice president of the organisation, told CNN. "There's a greater awareness of it and concern for it and people wanting to protect themselves and their families against it."
Being Black and having a gun doesn’t guarantee one’s safety in America, though, especially when the police are involved. During a botched drug raid in Louisville in March, the boyfriend of Breonna Taylor fired at officers when they broke down her door, mistakenly believing they were intruders, and the police shot and killed Ms Taylor.
In 2016, in one the incidents that triggered a previous round of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, an officer near St Paul, Minnesota, killed Philando Castile within seconds after he informed the policeman he had a legal firearm, even as he repeatedly said he wasn’t reaching for it.
Guns and politics have intersected during many of the most historic moments of 2020. In early October, the FBI foiled a plot from an armed militia-style vigilante group to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and it was revealed that some of the plotters had allegedly attended heavily armed demonstrations against her coronavirus lockdowns and in favour of the Second Amendment. Meanwhile, armed pro-Trump vigilante groups have vowed to patrol polling places on election day.